…And so, the capricious blogger returned from the wildlands and staggered back into the blogosphere. Older, wearier, significantly crazier, her determination to share the minutiae of her reading life was renewed, now almost as strong as her unslakeable lust for the written word…
What up, peeps! How was your April? Mine was in-SANE. Alas, this is a book blog, so I can’t tell you about all of the miles I walked and the fights I fought, the kisses I evaded, the ghosts I busted, or the villages I pillaged. Official book blogging rules dictate that I can only tell you about the books I read, and even this rebel can’t break that rule.
So I’m back! And so are you, I guess – hopefully. Yay us!
On with the blogging! So last month, one of my favourite book online book clubs, Sword and Laser, read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. It’s one of my Favourite Books Ever, so I thought I’d re-read it and enjoy the awesome all over again.
Here’s a little back-story about my relationship with this book. And yeah, it gets intense. I consider this to be my first real, deliberate foray into SFF and into fandom itself. Of course, I sprung into the world a SFF/genre nerd – my birth was precipitated by a timely screening of Aliens, make of that what you will – and as a child I devoured everything could that was weird, fantastical, creepy, or spooky. Ghostbusters, Labyrinth, Beetlejuice, Willow, The Addams Family – god, even The Neverending Story (cringe with me). Bookwise, it was Grimm’s fairy tales and those Bailey School Kids books (do you remember those?) But the Pern books were different for a couple of reasons.
First, and maybe most importantly, was that I came across the Pern books independently, or rather, from someone outside my family. It was actually my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, who gave me McCaffrey’s Dragonsong (and subsequently became my go-to Pern dealer). Another reason that the Pern books were different was that they represented my first toe-dip (and later canon-ball) into the ocean of fandom. My nerd-love for every other thing that has come since – cough Lord of the Rings cough – is intrinsically linked with this first love. Oh, it was love. Crazy love. Like, obsessive, Idris-Elba-stalking love. Man, I literally destroyed five copies of Dragonflight. Five. I’ll let you think about that. At one point, I just gave up buying new copies and used an elastic band to hold the pages together. Seriously. Anyway, I devoured every single Pern book, and then when I reached the end, I did what every normal fan would do. I picked up my pen and started writing my own Pern stories, and thus was a fanfiction writer born. (NERD!) Of course, I didn’t know this was fanfiction, because the internet was just a wee babby and nerds were still solitary creatures. I just thought I was being really resourceful. Ah, the folly of youth.
That is why I was both excited and a little nervous to re-read Dragonflight, my favourite of all the Pern books. I used to do re-reads all the time, but I think the last one was in high school, ages and ages ago. Would my love for it endure, or would all of my fond memories be ripped violently to shreds?
The answer: no, but also kinda, but then no again.
THE DEAL: On the planet Pern, the massive dragons and their riders with whom they share a telepathic link were once the heroes and saviours of their people, protecting them from the deadly alien spore called Thread, which devours all organic material in its path. But Thread hasn’t fallen in four hundred years, and the dragons and their riders have fallen into disfavour, scorned as parasitic relics from a bygone era. Lessa is more concerned with avenging her family, murdered ten years ago when she was a young child. F’lar, rider of a bronze dragon, realizes that Lessa may be the only who can help him restore the last Weyr, home to what dragons remain on Pern. He brings the clever and strong-willed Lessa to Benden Weyr, where she bonds with the newly-hatched queen dragon. Putting aside her plans for vengeance, Lessa focuses instead of raising her dragon. She and F’lar put aside their differences as they begin to understand that Thread will soon return. Together they must work to convince the rest of Pern of the imminent danger. Lessa will have to solve a centuries-old mystery and decide whether she is willing to risk her life, and that of her beloved dragon, to save all of Pern.
So first, let’s talk about the good stuff. Which is obviously, DRAGONS!!! I mean, come on. Who doesn’t like dragons? No one, that’s who. And on top of that, they’re dragons who mind-meld with their rider, becoming their life-long uber-BFF. Awesome squared.
And then there’s the world-building. This is the just the first book of 24 in the Dragonriders of Pern series, and I can only slow-clap in worshipful awe of McCaffrey’s genius. Day-um. It is fantastic. Sure, it’s not perfect, and McCaffrey did tweak and ret-con and change a few details in the later books, but even so, in this first foray into Pern, there is a sense of completeness that is astounding. Almost every aspect feels believeable and authentic. I’d have to place McCaffrey alongside the titans of world-building, Tolkien, Rowling, and Pullman (no, GRRM, you do not make my list). In the words of Liz Lemon, I want to go to there.
The characters are also great. Lessa starts out as a BAMF and just gets better when she ends up HBIC. (Lol.) She’s clever, devious, even, focused, determined, and strong. Talk about a role model. F’lar is kind of an ass, but hey, that kind of does it for me. Shrug. And put the two of them together – yum! I was actually quite surprised by how many people on the GoodReads forums thought the characters were flat and underdeveloped and lacked clear motivations. I personally felt the characters were very meaty, and I thought their motivations clear by the end of the novel. I would have appreciated more character development and insight, of course, but I think any perceived lack of character depth and evolution has to do with the length and pacing of the novel – both of which I find problematic. Dragonflight is without a doubt far too rushed, and far too short – a chicken egg sort of problem.
The relationship between Lessa and F’lar was hotly debated on the forums as well, and generally thought to embody the squickiest of squick. Again, I have to disagree. Sure, they started out loathing each other, and as I mentioned above, F’lar is not the nicest guy, but I think their relationship was shown to evolve, subtly and slowly, to be sure, but unmistakeably, into something deeper and more complex. And again, yes, there should have been more time spent developing this relationship, especially from Lessa’s point of view, but even so, I thought it worked. Or maybe it’s just me. Upon reflection I realize that I have initially despised every guy I’ve ever come to swoon over, so maybe the initial hatred thing is a little quirk of mine. Or maybe I just read Wuthering Heights at way too young an age and have internalized Cathy and Heathcliff’s passionate love-hate conundrum. Yeah, that’s probably it.
Another great thing about Dragonflight is that it defies categorization. You see dragons, and automatically think, duh, fantasy, but as is revealed in the prologue, Pern was settled by humans looking to colonize habitable planets. So, despite the dragons and the rather formal language and the vaguely Medieval society, the Pern books are really more science fiction upon close scrutiny. Way to defy convention before it was even cool, McCaffrey. You are my hero.
It’s also worthwhile to note that this would make an excellent YA recommendation. Lessa is 21 when the story begins, and her development over the novel, from petty, vengeful girl to mature, responsible hero is an excellent embodiment of the coming-of-age trope.
So what about the not-so-good aspects? After I reread this book, I was all, hell yeah, that was awesome, McCaffrey, you are a legend… but then I had to grudgingly admit that there were some things that bothered me, things that left a sour taste in my mouth. Like many readers, I felt there were some serious problems with gender, sexuality, and classism. Funnily enough, I can’t remember being bothered by these as a sixth-grader or a teen. That’s what four years of literary criticism will do to you, I suppose. I hated the emphasis on F’lar’s manly manliness. I would have preferred his ‘manly’ qualities to be articulated and described objectively, without reference to gender. If he’s tough and laconic and a strong leader, fine – what’s not okay is identifying these traits as exclusively masculine. Similarly, Lessa is sometimes described as doing something “feminine” – ugh. And the class thing was so exhausting. Lessa’s ties to “the Blood” are referenced so many times I lost count. However, as much as these two things bothered me, when I really sat down to think about it, they both make sense, in a strange way. Not because the book was written in 1968, but because it’s set in a typical, Medieval sort of society. Pern may have been colonized in the distant future, but Pernese society, as we are introduced to it in Dragonflight, had regressed, not advanced. If we use history as a guide, sexism, adherence to traditional gender role, and an emphasis on class and ancestors is actually to be expected.
Then there’s the whole spoiler-y thing about the sex. I’m not even gonna touch that. I will say it didn’t bother me – in that I didn’t interpret it in the negative way that many other readers seem to have done. Make of that what you will, I suppose.
I also thought the (spoiler) time travel stuff made less and less sense the more you thought about it, but that’s more of a general time travel complaint, really. Does it ever really make sense?
My biggest pet peeve, though, has got to be the wretched names. Oh, those freaking contractions. Try explaining your love of this book to someone – say, for example, your own mother – only to get to the names F’lar and F’nor and R’gul, and have dear old mom – I mean, whoever you’re telling – laugh in your face. (I’m not holding a grudge or anything. Jeez.) McCaffrey explained the whole male dragonrider apostrophe thing in later books, but I still HATE IT. So so much.
Verdict: READ IT. I’m a whole-hearted McCaffrey acolyte, what else am I going to say? But even if I wasn’t a diehard fan, I’d still recommend it. Dragonflight is considered both a science fiction and a fantasy classic, and it deserves all of its accolades. McCaffrey was also the first woman to win the Hugo and Nebula awards for the short stories that would eventually form this book. So yeah. Read it, be amazed, and then read the next 23 novels in the series. (And the watch-wher in the first couple of chapters will BREAK YOUR HEART worse than Ragnar Lodbrok.)
Best lines: Less quotable than some of the books I’ve read, but a few gems. My favourite: “Perversity, endurance, and guile were her other weapons, loaded with the inexhaustible patience of vengeful dedication.” (p. 3). You know me; I looovve me some vengeance.
Rating: Four out of five giant gold dragons.
Oh, Book Cat. You know nothing, Titus Andronicus.